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When a Spanish-speaking man in Allentown, Pennsylvania, called Lehigh County’s 911 center to report a fire at the home where he lived with his 14-year-old nephew, a dispatcher allegedly told him to speak English as he frantically begged for help, then hung up.
Both the man and the teenager died, according to a federal lawsuit filed by seven of the center’s former employees this week.
Lehigh County officials, however, are heavily disputing that dispatchers ever failed to properly respond to the July 2020 incident—or that the caller even spoke Spanish, according to County Solicitor Thomas Caffrey.
Caffrey, who has listened to the call, told VICE News Monday that police and fire services had already been sent out to the man’s address before he dialed 911, since someone else—presumably a neighbor—had reported the house fire just minutes earlier.
Even so, when the man spoke to a dispatcher, they conversed in English for about 26 seconds before the call disconnected, according to Caffrey. Although the dispatcher was unable to call the man back, since his number appeared to be unlisted, emergency services arrived on scene almost immediately after. The man was not hung up on, Caffrey said.
The county is still discussing whether it will release the audio of the 911 call.
“The county decided to jump immediately on this particular allegation because of the significance of it,” Caffrey said. “We investigated it and determined that it’s absolutely false, and we want the public to know that they can have faith in their 911 center.”
Still, the ex-dispatchers’ complaint, which was filed in a federal court Wednesday, also alleges that some of their white co-workers openly spoke about how much they disliked taking emergency calls from Spanish-speaking residents—sometimes forcing Latino callers to speak English or be denied assistance. During the call about the house fire and others, certain employees would also allegedly refuse to use translation services, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by local media.(Caffrey said that, since the man who died in the house fire spoke English, translation service would not have been necessary.)
The former workers’ grievances go well beyond accusations of racism and allege an overall culture of chaos and incompetence at the 911 center in Lehigh County, too. When the ex-employees spoke out about behavior they felt risked locals’ safety, though, they say they were retaliated against.
Among their complaints: A supervisor watched soap operas and sold nail polish on the job, according to the lawsuit, while one one employee slept during his shifts, resulting in “countless calls going unanswered.”
Sometimes dispatchers would also play cornhole during work hours, leading to “delays and missed emergency calls, including police calls, fire calls and calls involving life- threatening situations,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit additionally alleges that Allentown’s digital radio system was not fully functioning, creating safety hazards, while some 911 dispatchers failed to monitor the “fire ground” channels established during working fires.
At times, local police and fire staff allegedly joined in to bemoan “unnecessary delays in the dispatch of emergency calls,” according to the lawsuit.
After the group of dispatch workers involved in the lawsuit “complained to county supervisors that the 911 Center was a hostile environment to callers who were minorities and were not fluent in the English language, especially Latinos/Hispanic callers,” among other concerns, they were punished, according to their complaint, which alleges violations of the former employees’ First and Fourteenth amendment rights.
The county is unable to comment on the broader claims in the lawsuit right now, Caffrey said, but all allegations will be investigated.
The ex-dispatchers’ lawsuit names Lehigh County and several current and former county officials as defendants. The complaint demands compensatory damages of at least $150,000 for each of the seven ex-workers as well as back pay and the resumption of their employment, among other requests.
The dispatchers grievances, which were repeatedly passed on to county supervisors, allegedly came to a head during a town hall meeting in December 2019, when one worker involved in the lawsuit publcily said he was concerned about the county’s safety, accusing the administration and supervisors of “negligently and recklessly overseeing the operation of the 911 center.”
That “embarrassed and infuriated” some county officials, the lawsuit alleges, eventually culminating in a disastrous New Year’s Eve toast that cost the lawsuit’s plaintiffs their jobs.
A longtime administrator and supervisor at the 911 center, who allegedly faced “racially hostile comments” herself, allegedly received permission from the county’s director of emergency services to make coquito mixed drinks for a single toast during a Dec. 31 shift. Then, although supervisors had drank and distributed alcohol on county property before, the several people who had complained about the 911 center’s operations were fired or forced to resign for participating in the toast, during which they drank an eggnog mix with “a minuscule amount of alcohol,” according to the lawsuit.
As a result, the current and former county officials named as defendants in the lawsuit “improperly and unlawfully acted to impart unwarranted and unwelcome discipline to plaintiffs in retaliation for plaintiffs’ exercising their well established First Amendment rights of freedom of speech as citizens on matters of public concern,” their complaint alleges.
UPDATE 11/25: This article has been updated to reflect Lehigh County Solicitor Thomas Caffrey’s refutation of the allegations, which was provided after publication.